The recent events involving the alleged sexual abuse of children by former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and former Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine have made national and international news. Not only are people appalled by the behavior of the alleged perpetrators, but we are equally upset by the inability of university personnel to have prevented much of the abuse that apparently occurred over many years. Many are confused as to what could have been done differently to protect children.
Child abuse is a major national problem. It is found among every race, religion and socioeconomic class. Every state is mandated to have laws regarding the reporting and the investigation of suspected child abuse. Though the laws are similar throughout the country, every state has its own definition of what constitutes abuse and who is mandated to report suspected abuse.
According to Pennsylvania law, child abuse is defined as "any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm." It can involve physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse or severe neglect involving a child under the age of 18.
The Child Protective Service Law is meant to provide safety and protection for children; provide services for children; encourage more reporting of child abuse; involve law enforcement when necessary; and assess risk to children.
Under this law, a mandated reporter is defined as anyone who, in the course of his/her work, is involved professionally with children. Teachers, health professionals, mental health workers, social workers, child care workers and most clergy are all mandated reporters. Mandated reporters must report known or reasonably suspected abuse of any child with whom they have a professional relationship, or of any child associated with the agency in which they work.
The procedure is to call Pennsylvania Child Abuse Hotline, whose staff is tasked with deciding whether the case needs to be further investigated by a county or law-enforcement agency.
In the Penn State case, the law was clearly broken in that children were abused. However, the reporting issue is murkier. According to the letter of the law, it appears that the law was not broken because the children involved were not part of Penn State's school or athletic program. However, the university had a strong connection with Mr. Sandusky's long-standing charity, The Second Mile, and therefore prosecutors likely will assert that Penn State personnel were mandated to report the abuse.
In the wake of this case, it is clear that the law will be amended. Legislators in Harrisburg already are debating new versions of the law. In several other states, mandated reporters are legally obligated to report any suspected or known abuse regardless of whether the child is a direct client. Some states view all adults as legally mandated to report child abuse.
Already, mandated reporters often call the child abuse hotline to report suspected or known abuse inflicted on children who are not associated with their agency or school. The vast majority of reports that come into the Pennsylvania hotline are from non-mandated reporters, better known as permissive reporters.
The courts will debate whether or not Penn State personnel were legally responsible for reporting the known abuse. Yet as we see, the legal obligation does not address our moral and ethical obligation to protect children.
The events of Penn State have spurred many organizations to look at their own policies regarding the reporting of suspected or known child abuse.
With all the current attention to the issue, now is the time for all of us to understand our legal as well as ethical obligation to protect our children.
Nancy Fagan, LCSW, is a child-welfare specialist with JFCS. She is planning a series of JFCS workshops on "Recognition and Reporting of Child Abuse." For information, email NFagan@jfcsphilly.org or call 267-256-2202. To report suspected or known child abuse in Pennsylvania, call 1-800-932-0313.